Stanford offers more free online classes for the world

In an ongoing experiment to leverage new educational technologies, the university is launching five free online classes this month.

L.A. Cicero John Mitchell portrait

Computer science Professor John Mitchell will chair a multidisciplinary faculty committee on educational technology.

Stanford University is introducing five free online classes this month, following a successful pilot last fall that drew more than 350,000 participants around the world.

The online classes are part of a university initiative to creatively use new technology to improve education both on campus and off. 

"Stanford has been a pioneer in online education for many years, and we are pleased to continue expanding and refining our online offerings to benefit both our own students and students around the world," said Stanford University Provost John Etchemendy.

Three classes will launch on March 12 – Design and Analysis of Algorithms, Natural Language Processing and  Cryptography. Two more, Game Theory and Probabilistic Graphical Models, are scheduled to launch on March 19.

Demand has been strong; total enrollment in the five new classes is nearly 335,000.

Last fall, 356,000 people from 190 countries expressed interest in one or more of the first three classes offered, and approximately 43,000 successfully completed a course. Participants came from as close as Stanford's Palo Alto campus and as far away as Ghana, Peru, Russia and New Zealand.

Interactive courses

The online classes are taught by regular Stanford faculty and are highly interactive. Participants view short interactive video clips that include live quizzes and instant feedback that allow them to quickly determine their understanding of the material and to work on problem areas. At the same time, participants help each other through online discussions similar to a comment thread on a social networking site.

Those enrolled in the free classes do not get Stanford credit for their work, but they do receive a statement of accomplishment if they successfully complete a course. 

For Stanford students, online content supplements the classroom experience. Professors are experimenting with a "flipped classroom," shifting classroom time from lectures to interactive activities such as problem-solving, reviewing difficult material and working in teams.

Online, students can view the interactive videos at their convenience and progress at their own pace. The interactive video questions and quizzes keep them thinking about the material and help them learn more effectively. At the same time, professors gain instant feedback on how students respond to lectures and course materials.

"Advances in video technology, social networks and collaboration software have put us at an inflection point in technology for higher education," said John Mitchell, a professor of computer science whom Stanford President John Hennessy has selected to be his special assistant for educational technology.

'On-campus lab'

The plan is to have an "on-campus lab" for experimentation, said Mitchell. He will chair a multidisciplinary faculty committee on educational technology that will include deans of three schools, the university provost's office and faculty or senior administrators from across campus.

"We'll be able to tap into the creative ideas that faculty have about improving courses, and accumulate insights and learning from a lot of very thoughtful people," Mitchell added.

The committee will explore some of the complex issues around providing high-quality online education, he said. This experiment, he said, will inform the university's future online course offerings.

The five new classes will be powered by Coursera, a startup company founded by Stanford Engineering professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, both of whom have a track record of leading online education efforts within Stanford. Ng, an expert in machine learning, was active in the Stanford Engineering Everywhere initiative to provide free course content. Koller, an expert in reasoning under uncertainty, was an early Stanford advocate of the flipped classroom model that combines video-based instruction, automated assessment and interactive in-class activities.

More information about class materials, instructors and enrollment is available on the Coursera website.

The new courses are only the latest effort by Stanford to share information and ideas with the public online. The Stanford Center for Professional Development has been a leader in distance education for more than 40 years. 

Stanford helped pioneer Apple's iTunes U service by academic institutions in 2005; as of March 3, more than 49 million Stanford programs and lectures have been downloaded. In 2008, the university launched Stanford Engineering Everywhere, among the first free sites to offer complete video-based courses and materials available anywhere, anytime and on-demand. It offers free course materials for 10 computer science and electrical engineering classes. 

"Stanford has always been a place where we are not afraid to try bold new things," said Stanford Engineering Dean Jim Plummer, one of three deans who will serve on the university's committee on educational technology. "The technology's there, the faculty interest is there, and this is a great opportunity to see what's possible in educating people outside the physical bounds of the university."

Other faculty committee members include Graduate School of Business Dean Garth Saloner; Law School Dean Larry Kramer; Charles Prober, a senior associate dean in the school of medicine; Harry Elam, the university's vice provost for undergraduate education; Peter DeMarzo, a senior associate dean in GSB; Bernd Girod, a professor of electrical engineering; Daniel Schwartz, a professor of education; and Rafe Mazzeo, a professor of mathematics.  

Jamie Beckett is director of communications and alumni relations at the Stanford School of Engineering.

Jamie Beckett, School of Engineering: (650) 736-2241,

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service: (650) 721-6965,